(Radio-Vaani 7) – Special on Kargil Vijay Divas 26th July
Kargil was largely a deserted town when our cavalcade reached here in the midst of a raging conflict (May to July 1999) between India and Pakistan after the detection of a large infiltration of Pakistani troops—disguised as Kashmiri militants—into positions on the Indian side of the LoC. I was part of an army conducted media party from Srinagar. The party comprising senior reporters from major media networks had waited for over three weeks in Srinagar to get army permission to move into the area where the actual action was taking place, or you can call it the battlefield.
I was travelling in a van along with the Film Division team. Old-timers would recall that the Films Division documentaries (popularly known as Newsreel) were shown in the Cinema Halls before the actual film would start. Film Division people were carrying sufficient quota of bread, butter, biscuits and rice to cope with the situation of getting stranded in some cut off place in war zone. I had a satellite phone beside my tape recorder.
Crossing the 12000 feet high Zojila, our first halt was a Bofors Guns Battery that was pounding the Pakistan army positions across the high hill to provide covering fire to our advancing troops. That was quite a show for the visual media, and the artillery unit obliged them abundantly. We were convinced about the efficacy of the gun that otherwise was mired into allegations of commission in its purchase from Sweden during a previous regime.
Soon after, we were given an extensive briefing by the senior army officers. Most part of the briefing was on the safety instructions which were to be followed by us for our own safety and also to ensure that the visitors did not jeopardize the safety of their hosts. We were also informed that the Tololing ridge overlooking Drass town had been cleared of the intruders, who comprised of Pakistan army soldiers and militants.
After the briefing, we were led to the Mess area for a sumptuous lunch where we were made to meet some young army officers who looked relaxed and cheerful. I gathered that main focus at that time was on the Tiger Hill that stands tall behind Drass town.
Soon after lunch, we were again on the move to get closer to the real action. Flashlights of bombardment with guided missiles were visible as we crossed Drass taking a right turn towards Kargil town. The narrow road runs along a river and some parts of it are in the firing range of Pakistani troops sitting on high hills on the Kaksar range.
A BSF team stopped our vehicles at a check post for some urgent precautions. “You are in the firing range of the enemy. Keep a distance of about 100 meters between your vehicles. No lights during darkness. Drive fast and don’t stop, even if you are fired upon”. The last instruction was quite chilling. We saw the wreckage of some vehicles down in the river and that heightened the fear.
After some time, we reached a hotel in Kargil. The town had faced daily artillery shelling from across the Line of Control. The hotel was a three storied structure, but all media persons wanted the first floor rooms. By now they had learnt that the top floor could face a direct hit from an artillery shell and if the shell exploded in the hotel compound, its splinters could get into ground floor rooms.
Most people from Kargil town had been shifted to tents at a safe place some distance away on the Zanskar road. We visited them the next day to listen to their tales of woe. They had abandoned their animals as there was none to look after them at home. Next day we were taken on to the road that leads to the Aryans inhabited five villages along the Indus River. Aryans have features quite different from the majority Ladakhi people.
They support local flowers in their headgears, except for the time when there is some mourning in their family. They usually work as labourers for the Army. It was an Aryan shepherd who first noticed the armed intruders and informed the Army. A recce team from the army was ambushed by the Pakistani soldiers. All its members were brutally killed and their highly mutilated bodies were handed over to the Indian Army. This was in clear violation of the international norms.
Back to the hotel next evening, the owner-cum-manager came to my room as I just finished filing my despatch to All India Radio newsroom in New Delhi. He said he knew me through my frequent bylines in AIR bulletins till about a year ago. I had functioned as AIR’s Senior Correspondent in Srinagar for over six years before being transferred to Delhi. We got talking, and I found in him an interesting person, as he had many tales to tell about the army and its officers. However, he was very scared for the security of the town, as he did not have the confidence that these good-humoured army officers with whom he was very friendly, could withstand the fierce fighting that was going on.
“Sir, Pakistan is not an option for us, the Kargil people. We are Shias and we know how Shias are treated in Pakistan. We have to stay in India only. There is no other home for us.” He was a bit agitated and looked somewhat desperate. I tried to assure him and told him about the very inspiring meeting we had with the young officers. I told him, how motivated they were and how sure I was of Indian Army’s successful campaign against the infiltrators.
On the fourth day, as the press party headed back to Srinagar, the Army spokesman in New Delhi, Colonel Bikram Singh, announced that the Tiger Hill had been recaptured. Col. Bikram Singh was to become the Chief of the Army Staff in due course of time. In between, he had a stint in Anantnag as a Brigadier.
The saga of the recapture of the Tiger Hill was to unfold in weeks and months to come. Sepoy Sanjay Kumar was to be decorated with the highest gallantry award of Param Vir Chakra on the following Republic Day of the year 2000. That is the history that would continue to be told every year, every time anyone talks of how the Kargil war was won by brave Indian soldiers.
*Writer Ajeet Singh was AIR’s correspondent in Jammu and Kashmir for over 19 years. He retired as Director of News, Doordarshan, Hisar.
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